Mind & Body

To Relieve Stress, Try Taking a Learning Break

When the pressure builds at work, how do you cope? Are you the type to just push through and tough it out? Or do you take a break to ease your stress and recharge your mind? According to new research, there might be a third, better option: take a second to learn something new.

Related Video: Why You Feel Good Learning New Things

Release the Pressure Valve

We don't have to tell you that stress is a bad thing. In the short term, it makes you irritable, anxious, and sleep-deprived; in the long-term, it can lead to depression, high blood pressure, and risk of a heart attack. It also makes you a worse employee: Studies show that stressed workers are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, like being rude to their co-workers, falsifying information, and stealing things. If work is too stressful for too long, you'll experience burnout — the other side of the stress and anxiety coin, where everything feels pointless and you feel disengaged from your work. Everyone experiences stress at one time or another and finding a way to relieve it is essential.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, researchers Chen Zhang, Christopher G. Myers, and David M. Mayer write that people generally cope with stress in one of two ways. They either power through, wearing their toughness as a badge of honor; or they take a break by surfing the web, taking a walk, or perhaps using whatever quirky equipment their office provides for the purpose (foosball, anyone?). But both of these strategies have their pitfalls. Powering through when your brain is fried will likely result in lower quality work, and taking a break is just a temporary fix since the stress will still be there when you return.

The researchers pose another solution: focus on learning. For two studies, they looked into the work behavior and job stressors of more than 300 U.S. employees, specifically examining how different coping strategies might offset stress and the unethical behaviors that result. For two weeks, they used daily surveys to track what employees did and how they felt throughout the day, including what they did to relax at work and how often they took time to learn something new.

It turned out that there's a big difference between the stress-buffering effects of relaxation and those of learning new things. On days when employees took more time learning things, they experienced less stress and anxiety and engaged in less unethical behavior. On the flipside, taking a break to do something relaxing didn't make them any less stressed or less likely to be mean to their co-workers or cut corners on the job. In another study of medical residents, they found that just being on a team of people who did a lot of learning helped buffer the effects of stress, even for individuals on that team that didn't seek out learning activities themselves.

Kick Back and Learn

Maybe we've been going about stress relief all wrong. Taking a walk or surfing the web is a nice temporary respite from the daily grind, but it doesn't last. Instead, taking time to learn something new may be the best way to go. In their article, researchers offer a few pieces of advice on how to get started. First, they suggest starting with the stressful situations themselves: reframe them as opportunities to learn, and seek advice from higher-ups when things really get tough. But most of all, they suggest making learning itself a new form of work break.

"This might seem like a mere mental rebranding, but if a learning activity allows you to divert from the type of effort you use in regular work activities (e.g., numeric thinking, interacting with clients), and if the activity also fits your intrinsic interests, it can replenish you psychologically," they write.

Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that you're engaging in a perfect learning break right now. Taking the time to read an article on Curiosity or your favorite outlet about science, history, or whatever fascinates you — or better yet, taking a walk and listening to the 10-minute Curiosity Daily podcast while you stroll — is a surefire way to ease pressure at the office. You're already ahead of the game.

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For more ways to use psychology to your advantage, check out John Medina's New York Times bestseller "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer September 27, 2018

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